National Days always have a habit of bringing out an ephemeral interest in some element or other a country's culture and idenity. The 4th of July seems to prompt a surge in radio stations playing Ronald Reagan's favourite Bruce Spingsteen track and ladies wearing stars and stripes bikinis. Canada Day normally involves 24 hour references to their syrupy-sweet temprament and Bill Shatner. As for Ireland, well...
For this year's not-long passed Australia Day, though, I dodged the corked hats and Fosters promotions and found myself instead revisiting the back catalogue of that most pre-eminent Australian, and a personal hero of mine: Clive James.
He gave an interview a few months ago saying he was nearing his terminus (thankfully he's nothing of the sort), yet it seems odd somehow that it's only when someone is beyond the terminus that full tribute is paid to them. So, working under the notion that a it's a shame that the subjects of heartfelt tributes and profiles of an influential character often miss them by just a few days, I thought I'd take leave from usual service for a week and write one now.
Since landing on the UK's shores from Sydney over half a decade ago, Clive James has been a cultural colossus. He writes a lot, for starters. Poetry, columns, essays, criticism, books, the whole shebang. He's made his mark on two of the crown jewels of British life, Cambridge Footlights and University Challenge. He even dances tango for god's sake. And, for over four decades, he's reviewed television, been on television and, at least as far as I'm concerned, been everything television should be.
This interview with Stephen Fry is a case in point. As is this scintillating monologue from "the greatest TV show in the history of rock and roll", where he appears to be possessing a Scottish Munro for shoulders. Or, indeed, this one, featuring his atonal partner in crime, Margarita Pracatan. Or maybe this, the style of topical news roundup he made his own. Or an extract from his thoughtful, atypical Postcard travelogue series. While all showing a different part of his on-screen oeuvre, they all show the same qualities: the ability to be wry, illuminating, clever and profoundly silly, yet esoteric and popular all at once.
I remember as a child, and particularly between the ages of about nine and 12, I seemed to see Clive on TV quite regularly. Watching his show on ITV I was exposed from an early age to grown-up but funny chat about politics and the news that has served me in good stead ever since, and his interviews with comedians the likes of Eddie Izzard and Dave Allen, which I still remember vividly, were heavily influential for pre-secondary school me, and crystallised the notion that had been in my head already that this might be a good way to live a life. We also shared a love of motor racing in common, and have a very clear memory of watching a documentary about his attempt to drive a car in anger himself. My dad, who was watching with me, said "He's a funny get, isn't he?". I couldn't but agree.
Since then, when pondering some big media issue or crisis like the BBC high command debacle or Murdoch's megalomaniacal linen being washed in public, I often think "What would Clive James think?". I found his thoughts on Murdoch to be particularly interesting, especially the bit about the onyx toilet seat.
A decade and a half after I first came into contact with Clive James his influence has become all the more pertinent. When people ask me what I'd like to do with my career, the phrase "a bit like Clive James" is invariably my opening salvo. When I was offered the Huffington Post gig, initially to review and discuss TV, I had just finished reading Clive's Unreliable Memoirs, and felt I just earned myself some kind of literary Easter Egg or hidden track. When I record topical review columns for Drivetime on Irish national broadcaster RTE, two questions come to mind: the first is "Am I just aping Clive James here?", and the second is "If not, shouldn't I be?"
Tributes are all very well and good and maybe feel more pertinent when someone is unwell, or worse, but when someone influences what you do day in and day out (and would like to do more of in the future) to the extent that Clive James has influenced me, fine timing as a concept seems pretty arbitrary. So here's to you Clive, you big inspiration. Just because I reckon it needed saying.